After the Trans-Tasman wake-up call, Scott Robertson lamented the gulf between NZ and Aussie rugby.
That casts the mind back to Rassie Erasmus’ acceptance speech as world coach of the 2019 season when his biggest compliment was to the ten-year All Blacks legacy under Steve Hansen. He said everybody aspires to compete and match the footy played by the warriors of the land of the silver fern.
It is too true but all is not lost to the Wallabies and the rest of the rugby fraternity. It just once again underscores that there is no substitute to regular competition against world-class opposition to keep your standards up and your powder dry. Although ten wins to zero losses to wins makes for dismal statistics, the wheel of time always turns.
The standards set by the Graham Henry/Steve Hansen-era All Blacks have produced an aspiring generation of new talent that – mixed in through the COVID bubble isolation with the broad field of local, experienced, older hands – quickly blooded them to a very high standard of play, which was set free once exposed to a smaller, top-end playing pool of slightly lesser opposition.
The reality is that Australia only has the talent and player pool to field three competitive teams on the international stage against the All Blacks’ five and the Boks’ four teams.
The Aussies have just become too ambitious during isolation, plain and simple, but fortunately Dave Rennie has the built-in antidote to spare them very embarrassing blushes on the international stage
Talent wise the Boks and All Blacks are on par but the politically destroyed Rand devastated the Boks’ local resources because top-end players sought greener pastures to secure their financial future. Commercialism will always come up trumps.
South African journalist Mark Keohane gave Warren Gatland some prime motivational material for the upcoming Lions tour with his assumptions and arrogance. Locally the stage is being set with the confirmation of the tour noticeably turbo-charging local standards after our myriad bubble-enforced local competitions produced turgid, sub-par performances.
Our wild geese plying their trade elsewhere are visibly upping the ante to remain in the reckoning for inclusion in the much sought-after Boks camp to stop Gatland’s troops in their tracks.
Logic dictates that we are onto a hiding after two years of international isolation but our much vaunted laager mentality when written off and Erasmus’ now famous cut-and-paste genius is dressing the table for an exciting and very unique tour.
Without the red army or any local spectators, it will hopefully still produce top-notch rugby for the purists and connoisseurs where rugby will once again be the winner.
Much has been made about Gatland’s selections by the peanut gallery but his selections point to a potentially very exciting game plan, not focused on trying to outmuscle the Boks’ monster pack and bomb squad combo but rather to outstep and out-think and then out-snipe the Boks’ formidable defensive qualities.
It’s only logic that if you can get your players to be that one step further away at the contact point when confronted by big, bruising defenders, you will tire them out and start collecting some juicy crumbs around the edges when this sucks in the wider defences.
Hence known bulldozers are conspicuous by their absence in his mix.
That’s a sound theory if you look at the selection mix. If anybody can pull this rabbit out of his hat and put it into practice, it’s definitely Gatland. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
The Boks’ class of ’19 is still a work in progress with the performance at the 2019 World Cup final just a glimpse of what this group could really achieve if they grow and expand their battle-tested game plan.
There are only two retirements from the ’19 final match-day 23 with very capable understudies ready to step up to ensure a seamless evolution and continuation of a winning formula.
The void that the streetwise Francois Louw – Siya Kolisi’s able replacement – left upon retirement can be more than capably filled by Marcell Coetzee, and Steven Kitshoff will fill most of Tendai Mtawarira’s formidable boots with a legion of talent waiting to join the bomb squad.
Most of the ’19 squad is building up a nice head of steam so running down the roster with possible improvements or injury replacements in the mix fills me with confidence that this is quite possibly not a bridge too far.
Willie le Roux, our very underrated fullback, is now ticking over nicely while Aphelele Fassi or a rejuvenated Damian Willemse are waiting in the wings.
Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe are both low-cap Boks that are maturing nicely with Sbu Nkosi a proven sub and Madosh Tambwe an exciting hybrid of Nkosi and Mapimpi, who is ready to to step up with a blistering turn of speed in his arsenal.
In midfield, the young Damian de Allende/Lukhanyo Am combo is set to blossom with Jesse Kriel and exciting young guns Rikus Pretorius and Wandisile Simelane ready to step up to the big stage.
Handre Pollard has become the most valuable player in world rugby after his 22-point haul in the final. He has recovered from injury and little Faf de Klerk is setting fields alight up north.
Pollard is the key. He’s become the glue of the back line and all his understudies fall short while Cobus Reinach or Elton Jantjies ably covers nine.
Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch pick themselves as tightheads while Trevor Nyakane will be unlucky not to be included.
Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx are the ideal 40-40-minute players with Joseph Dweba an exciting young blood.
Steven Kitshoff picks himself and my wild cards as bomb squad understudies are Ox Notshe and Lizo Gqoboka. Both are powerful and very exciting talents.
Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager should both be fit and ready but understudies abound.
Our talisman Kolisi is building a nice head of steam at new pastures with the Sharks while Pieter-Steph du Toit returned after serious injury as if he’s never left.
The player of the ’19 final Duane Vermeulen is building up to full Thor mode while Marcell Coetzee could fit seamlessly into any one of the three positions after his Ulster heroics. He is now safely home in the Bulls’ Kraal.
Erasmus’ ace in the pack that crystallised the bomb squad is Frans Steyn.
Steyn continues to mature like a fine red wine and is an evergreen but Damian Willemse could easily slot into that mould.
It is a squad to take on all comers while inactivity raises the only unanswered questions. They will be answered in two months’ time, which is match time and sell-by date of the individual players at the top level.
I call for new young bloods to maybe bash the door down and cause some surprises.
Among the backs there is Madosh Tambwe, Wandisile Simelane and maybe Rikus Pretorius and among the forwards there is Joseph Dweba, Ox Notshe and Lizo Gqoboka.
Mark Keohane will quite possibly end up with a nice helping of egg on his face once the final whistle goes. I suspect a 3-0 whitewash is just wishful thinking and clickbait for him to stay relevant.
But the Lions versus the Boks in 2021 might go down to the wire and in future become a classic documentary follow-up to the excellent Chasing the Sun.
It is a truly unique, timeless story of a group of sportsmen that against all the odds and obstacles dared to dream they would become stronger together and in the process achieve true greatness.